With high salaries and plenty of tax-free perks, the private sector has long held most of the graduate recruitment aces. But when it comes to work-life balance and ethical career choices, employers in the public and voluntary sectors can often hold the winning hand.

The public and voluntary sectors offer exciting career prospects for graduates. Many of the jobs available lead to professional qualifications and offer early career progression. There is now greater awareness of the diverse range of opportunities at a local and national level, and many employers are developing new schemes designed to attract and develop graduate talent.

Fiona Christie, a careers adviser at the University of Manchester and UMIST career services, says: "The public sector is getting its act together, and the National Graduate Development programme in local government is a great example of this."

But what about money? With the likely introduction of higher tuition fees and ever-increasing debt, there is a danger that more graduates will have to put their bank balance first. However, while there's no doubt that the highest salaries are offered by investment banks and corporate law firms, many graduates will still be looking for more than just a good pay deal. Kate Kirkpatrick, University of Manchester Students Union Women's Officer, says: "I know some potential high-fliers are frankly disillusioned with the traditional corporate jobs on offer."

Daisy Horsley sums up the dilemma facing many graduates: "I graduated a couple of years ago and struggled to decide whether to pursue law or teaching. In the end I chose teaching as it seems to offer a more hands-on and worthwhile career, and promises a better work-life balance."

Changing from a mainstream private sector career to the voluntary and public sectors can also be challenging. Sarah has a PhD and was working for a major pharmaceutical company before she became disillusioned and decided to take drastic action. "I packed my job in, volunteered for six months with the Groundwork Trust and have now got a new job in the public sector. Making that leap from industry, and the security of a job is daunting, but I've never regretted it."

So what is driving this cultural change? It might partly be seen as a backlash to the "Me Plc" attitude of the Eighties, where responding to the wants of individuals was seen as more important than meeting the needs of society. There is also evidence that many people are tiring of the high-pressure, long hours culture of some companies and are opting to leave, often for jobs offering lower salaries, in order to secure a better quality of life.

It could also be a reflection on a range of government initiatives that support greater social awareness and inclusion. These include citizenship classes in primary schools, and the Higher Education Active Community Fund which promotes voluntary activity in universities and colleges.

However, without relevant experience, breaking into paid positions in the public and voluntary sectors can be tough for graduates. Students can improve their chances by researching entry routes early on and by taking full advantage of campus-based activities such as those offered by student clubs and societies.

Universities are taking up the challenge to respond to student and graduate demands for careers information about the public and voluntary sectors. For the past few years the University of Manchester & UMIST Careers Service have organised the Kaleidoscope Fair to help students find out more about job and volunteering opportunities.

This year's fair is on Wednesday 25 February at The Academy, and the 80 organisations attending include the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Barnado's and The National Trust. Students and graduates from any university or college are welcome to attend. For more information on exhibitors visit: www.graduatecareersonline.com/fairs/kaleidoscope

Caroline Birch is manager of Manchester Student Volunteers at the University of Manchester & UMIST Careers Service

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